Fighting for justice and dignity: Interview with Behrouz Boochani

By Roselina Press | 22 Apr 24
Behrouz Boochani
Behrouz Boochani. Getty Images

Like sheep to a slaughterhouse.”

This is how Behrouz Boochani, in his memoir No Friends But the Mountains, describes the experience of being thrown behind the prison walls of the Manus detention centre. After a month of being incarcerated on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, Boochani writes that he felt like “a piece of meat thrown into an unknown land: a prison of filth and heat.”

The full passage reads,

“I dwell among a sea of people with faces stained and shaped by anger, faces scarred with hostility. Every week, one or two planes land in the island’s wreck of an airport and throngs of people disembark. Hours later, they are tossed into the prison among the deafening ruckus of displaced people, like sheep to a slaughterhouse.”

Since 2013, more than 3,100 people have been taken to offshore detention in Manus and Nauru – people who came seeking safety in Australia, only to be imprisoned, indefinitely, in hellish conditions. Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, was one of those people.

Boochani was held on Manus Island for six years. He fled the Iranian government, for fear of political persecution, only to end up under the control of a brutal regime administered by Australia. The Manus prison was notoriously horrific for its inhabitants. Hot, filthy and overcrowded, with limited electricity, clean water and medical care; the kinds of conditions designed to stamp out hope and extinguish the human spirit.

In 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared that no one seeking asylum in Australia arriving by boat would ever set foot in Australia. Instead they would be sent to offshore detention centres on Manus Island or Nauru. It was a draconian policy that closed Australia’s borders to refugees and asylum seekers and sentenced them to indefinite offshore detention, a sentence that for some meant death. At least 14 people who were subject to offshore detention have died.

The cruelty of offshore detention has largely disappeared now from public view. Nearly 11 years have passed since Rudd denied people arriving by boat the chance to settle in Australia. Offshore detention is still legal and though the Manus detention centre was forcibly closed in 2017, 80 people are still stuck there in limbo. Nauru, too, is still active and according to the government’s own reporting, there were 15 people detained there as at 31st January this year. Offshore detention no longer dominates media headlines, but the human cost, the irreparable damage and trauma inflicted on individuals and their families, continues.

Today, Boochani lives what he calls a “normal life” in Wellington, New Zealand. In 2020, he was granted refugee status in New Zealand, with a path to citizenship and the chance to rebuild his life. He enjoys being part of Wellington’s literature and arts scene and, in his words, likes just “chilling out with people” and being a part of a community.

Last year was a busy year for him, he tells Right Now. “I visited Europe two times for some events and conferences,” he says. He spoke to audiences in Portugal, Hungary, Italy, and other countries, on topics ranging from literature to European refugee policies. “That was a big treat for me – it was like a tour all across Europe.”

And then, in November, he travelled to Australia.

Once told by Labor and Liberal governments that he would never land on Australian soil, Boochani arrived at Parliament House in Canberra. He stood inside the very same walls where politicians had condemned him to years of exile on Manus Island.

Behrouz Boochani at Parliament House. Credit: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

Here he joined a coalition of refugees, people seeking asylum, advocacy organisations and faith groups to call for the Albanese Government to establish a Royal Commission into Australia’s immigration detention regime. Boochani says an independent investigation, into both onshore and offshore detention, is needed to lay bare the truth of this brutal system that has harmed so many – and to hold those responsible to account.

It would also, he says, give refugees an opportunity to tell their stories and feel heard.

“If the Royal Commission investigates this, that is already an achievement because it’s a kind of official recognition.

“I think it is very important for refugees who have been ignored for many years. For the first time, officially, they [would] feel that they are being heard. And that creates a space for refugees who have been damaged to share their stories.

“It’s a kind of recognition of their collective trauma. And it can be healing as well, you know, in some ways. Because people feel as if they have been seen for the first time.”

When asked what kind of justice he hopes a Royal Commission would bring, Boochani pauses to consider his answer.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer because … this system caused a huge damage to people and their families. It’s not only about those who have been held in this system, but also their families back home. I think it is a tragedy. I don’t know how we can respond to a tragedy like that and what justice means for this.

“But that doesn’t mean that we don’t fight for [justice]. Because many people, many politicians have been involved in this … I call it crimes against humanity.”

Boochani describes himself as a fighter. Writing and activism is his resistance. He fights not just for truth-telling and accountability, but for dignity for refugees. They are neither a dehumanised “other” or piteous victim, and he sees his work as defiance against a political debate that circumscribes them to stereotypes, which erase their agency and identity.

“I am trying to challenge the way that we often see refugees represented in the media and public spaces,” he says. “I always try to analyse refugees not separate from the politics in Australia.

“I think the victimisation of refugees is problematic, so I try to write and talk about refugees with dignity, to respect their dignity, respect their identity and who they are, you know. That is my work.

“Always I try to recognise how refugees resist and fight for their identity.”

The Albanese Government has so far ignored Boochani’s call for a Royal Commission. It is also, at time of publication, rushing laws through parliament that could impose a Trump-style travel ban on entire countries of people and jail people who refuse to comply with their own deportation, even if it is back to a country where they may be persecuted or killed. From warehousing people in Pacific prisons, like sheep to a slaughterhouse, to throwing them in jail if they refuse to be deported back to danger, Australia’s punitive policies towards refugees persist.

A theme Boochani is exploring in his upcoming projects – which include newspaper articles, a book of short stories and a film – is the history of violence in Australia, since colonisation. “There is a pattern in Australia that repeats itself, a pattern of violence, and targets different kinds of people,” he says.

So long as Australia refuses to reckon with its dark history of criminalising refugees, it’s easy to see how this pattern will only continue.